The Ultimate Guide to Narrative Design

Storytelling is a cultural activity that brings us together. There’s a real sense of inclusion when we talk about story; we use it to connect with others and to create an experience. If you’ve ever found yourself on the periphery of a conversation about the latest “must watch” TV show, you’ve thought about joining the hype so that you could be part of that conversation. Like a great TV series, storytelling in video games, and the shared narrative of the gameplay is often what drives us to play them.

During my time at Disney, I managed a team of narrative designers, working on a variety of projects from in-game narrative and marketing to print magazines and book publishing. It was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. But what does “narrative design” mean and how do you do it?

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so here’s what we’re going to talk about today:

Table of Contents

What is narrative design?

Simply put, narrative design is the use of story to make sense of gameplay in a video game. Like a novelist, the narrative designer focuses on elements such as structure, character, and setting, but the key difference is that the hero in the story is the player and their experience is interactive.

According to Wikipedia, the first-person to use narrative design as a job description was Stephen Dinehart back in 2006 during his time at American game publisher, THQ. Dinehart, who has worked on numerous games including Cloud, Company of Heroes and Prey, is thought of as one of the world’s best game writers. But it was Executive Producer Tarrnie Williams that wrote that job description and championed the importance of story.

The narrative designer’s role on a team is much more than just being a good writer and storyteller. The narrative designer works with her team to build a world, inventing characters and events, and reconciling mechanics or rules. The job is part writing and part championing the importance of story throughout the process of making a game.

With interactive storytelling, the challenge becomes how to make the player the hero of the story and how that impacts the structure of the narrative. That might start as early as your marketing campaign when you call a player to action through trailers and key game art.

Although not all mechanics need explaining, part of your role may include justifying a mechanical element or giving meaning to rules within the setting of a game. Designer Jurie Horneman describes this as “diegesis,” or information related to the audience from the narrator.

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